Thursday, September 30, 2010


Harald III of Norway, aka Harald Sigurdsson, aka Harald Hardrada died at Stamford Bridge near York on 25 September 1066, or 944 years ago last Saturday[1]. He failed in his bid to become the 3rd King of England that year. He's sadly neglected by most popular histories[2] in favour of William I of England[3], Harold Godwinson, and Edward the Confessor, who were all kings of England[4]. So today's questions are: Who was he? and What was he doing in Yorkshire?

Who was he?

Harald was the half-brother of Olaf II of Norway[5]. Olaf was king of Norway until 1030, when he was defeated and killed by a man named Canute[6]. Canute, already king of England and Denmark, was now king of Norway as well, with an empire stretching from the North Cape to the Isles of Scilly[7]. Olaf's most hardcore supporters went into exile in Kievan Rus, where Harald emerged as their leader.

Harald seems to have wanted to marry the daughter of the Yaroslav the Wise, but Yaroslav was reluctant to let a penniless exile do so. As the leader of 500 or so warriors, Harald had the traditional viking options available to him to improve his situation; stealing loot, stealing and ransoming (or enslaving) people, and stealing entire countries. He went for another tradition neglected by history: mercenary.

Harald became a general in command of the Varangian Guard, the foreign bodyguard of the Byzantine Emperors in Constantinople. The theory was that foreigners were unable to become emperor, so the Emperors were safer with foreign bodyguards. In the seven years Harald was Bodyguard in Chief three emperors died[8] and each time he either looted the treasury or was paid off by the new Emperor, or maybe a bit of both. He became fabulously wealthy and returned to Kiev where he married Yarolslav's daughter Elisabeth.

Meanwhile Canute had died. Norway was ruled by Magnus II (known as the Good), the illegitimate son of Saint Olaf[9]. Harald thought his claim was better. War was avoided as they negotiated. Then after two years of compacts, treaties and agreements being made and broken Magnus suddenly died and Harald sole king.

Why was he in Yorkshire?

Harald's first order of business was Magnus' inheritance. After the death of Canute, Magnus had made a deal with Canute's son Harthacanute[10], who was facing a challenge from his half brother Harold Harefoot. According to the treaty, if either died without an heir, the other would inherit his kingdom. As Magnus' heir, Harald claimed the crown of Denmark and (possibly as an afterthought) England. He then spent most of the next 20 years, and all his incredible wealth, trying to keep Denmark conquered.

Eventually he gave up. At this moment Tostig Godwinson, brother of Harold of England, arrived at his court. Tostig had been removed as Earl of Northumbria, as his policies the previous year had nearly plunged the country into civil war. Furious with his brother for removing him, and then taking the throne of England, Tostig encouraged Harald to take up his claim, offering his supporters and declaring that the English of Danish and Norse ancestry would prefer the heir of Canute over that of Harald. Out of money, Harald gathered 300 longships and an army of 15 000 and invaded. Defeating the local forces, Harald then fatally split his army.

Rather than surrender, Harold headed north in a forced march. According to legend he offered Tostig back his Earldom if he would turn on his ally. When asked what they'd offer Harald, he replied six feet of English soil - or as much more as was needed as he was taller than most men. As I gave away at the start, Harald was killed in the battle. Of the 300 ships, only 24 made it home. Traditionally this is considered the end of the viking age.


Hardrada is usually translated as Hard Rule or Hard Ruler. Stern Counsel is another translation, which perhaps gives us a little more insight into Harald's mind.

How hard was he?

He fought across the Mediterranean, Russia and Poland as well as Norway, Sweden, Denmark and England. Only two men seem to have got the better of him - Harold Godwinson, Warlord of England for 10 years for Edward the Confessor and Canute, known as the Great.

[1] Ignoring, as I traditionally do, the transition between Julian and Gregorian calenders.
[2] Although that's changing
[3] Aka William the Conqueror, and formerly known as William the Bastard. You know if everyone called me Guillaume le Bâtard I might invade a country to try and get them to stop.
[4] Today I, like history, will ignore Edgar the Ætheling
[5] Aka Olaf the Big, later known as Saint Olaf.
[6] Or, as we're in Norway at this point, Knut.
[7] This is the traditional description of Canute's realm.
[8] I count about 70 Emperors in the 809 years between 395 and 1204, giving an average of 11 years per Emperor. How's that foreign bodyguard working out for you guys?
[9] Sainting was a lot more fun in those days
[10] "Hardy Canute" - In Denmark his official name seems to have been Knut III Hardaknut. The whole nicknaming thing in Medieval Scandinavia probably needs it's own post.
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